- H.M.S. 51 HOOD -

(Mighty Hood)


"Ventis Secundis "

What Destroyed the H.M.S. Hood?

( By Tony DiGiulian with Stuart Slade )

On 24 May 1941, in possibly the most famous Naval Battle of World War II, the British ships HMS Hood and HMS Prince of Wales engaged the German ships KM Bismarck and KM Prinz Eugen at the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland.

At the Battle of the Denmark Straits, the Hood was defeated and destroyed with a large loss of life.  Out of a complement of 1,419 men, only three were rescued.  Some facts about the Hood's demise are beyond dispute:  The aft 15 inch (38.1 cm) magazine exploded, the explosion collapsed the amidships section, the ship broke into two sections with the stern section sinking almost immediately and the bow section floating for about three minutes.   However, the reasons for her loss have been a source of controversy ever since the battle.  There are at least seven plausible explanations for the HMS Hood's sinking.  I have heard others, but, I do not find them credible enough to list here.  The first four are what I consider to be the most likely Theories, the others are given in no particular order.

1) Official Explanation:  The British held two inquiries into the Hood's loss.  The first was quite brief, reporting on 2 June 1941, less than two weeks after the Hood was sunk.  The second was much longer and detailed, taking testimony from 89 witnesses from the Norfolk, 71 from the Prince of Wales, 14 from the Suffolk, 2 from the Hood and from numerous technical experts.  This inquiry reported on 12 September 1941.  Both inquiries concluded that the cause of the Hood's loss was not from the Cordite fire on the boat deck, but from one or two 15 inch shells which pierced through the thin amidships deck armor (or possibly the side belt), set off the four inch magazine which in turn set off the after 15 inch magazine.

2) A 15 inch hit that struck the ship underwater, penetrated under the armor belt and detonated in the aft 15 inch magazine.

3) An 8 inch (20.3 cm) or a 15 inch hit on the boatdeck that started a major fire in the four inch ready-use and UP lockers.  This gangfired down the four inch ammunition hoists, detonated the four inch magazines, which in turn then set off the aft 15 inch magazine.

4) The fire on the boatdeck as above, but it detonated the torpedo storage and that in turn blew the aft 15 inch magazine.  This theory was advanced by the head of the Director of Naval Construction (DNC), Sir Stanley Goodall (who, together with A. L. Attwood, had been in charge of the Hood's design while he was a constructor).   A problem with both this and the previous theory is that the fires on the Boat Deck were reported to be dying down by both the witnesses on the Prince of Wales and by Able Seaman Tilburn, the only Hood survivor from the Boat Deck.  It is possible that a second fire was burning unseen (to outside observers) down in the torpedo body room, but no such report reached the bridge in the four minutes between the time of the first hit and the time of the Hood's destruction.

5) As a result of the lessons the British learned at Jutland - where three British Battlecruisers blew up from German shellfire - the Hood was redesigned while still under construction to increase her armor protection.  This design work was poorly done, resulting in a badly stressed hull.  So, at the Denmark Strait battle, the fire on the boatdeck as above may have set the torpedoes on fire.  This would have created a very hot fire that could have weakened the strength deck, causing stress levels (already critical) to pass the danger point.  The result was that the ship simply broke in half.  As the ship broke up, the fire penetrated into the magazines, which then exploded.

6) Just before leaving on her last voyage, the crew had been working to correct a defect in one of the Hood's magazine hydraulic systems. It was stopping just short of the proper level needed to lift  cartridges into the loading position.  It is unknown if this fault was completely corrected.  This problem, if unrepaired or with the turret crew, in the stress of battle, working without all safety precautions in place, could have caused a cartridge, and instantly thereafter the magazine, to explode.

7) A 15 inch shell struck the belt armor, skidded down the inclined face of the plating, and then exploded in the bilges.  The flash and blast got propagated through the ship's belly into the aft magazine.  This sounds odd, but there was some testing done in the late 1920s that might support the idea.  These showed that inwardly inclined armor may indeed deflect a shell in the manner suggested, with the result that the shell would explode in a very dangerous position - under the armor belt and inside the anti-torpedo protection system.  Apparently, the concerns about this possibility were enough to cause the DNC to abandon inclined armor for the King George V, Lion and Vanguard class battleships.

Nasty point about Theories 3, 4 and 5 is that the damage that sank the Hood would have been inflicted by the Prinz Eugen.  So, ironically, a battlecruiser designed and built to destroy cruisers was instead destroyed by a cruiser.


My personal reasons for believing in Theory #1 go like this:

First, you must understand that there was a bright fire burning on the Hood as a result of an 8 inch hit by the Prinz Eugen (see Theory #3, above).  With the stereoscopic optical range finders used by the Germans - possibly the best in the world at the time - this fire gave the Germans a much better aiming point, which meant that was now made much easier for them to determine accurate range and bearing information.

Secondly, the Bismarck fired a "on-target" half-salvo, which landed all around the Hood.  The Prince of Wales was fairly close to the Hood, and some witnesses from her said that they only observed about two or three shell splashes.  That means that one or two shells from that salvo must have hit the Hood.  All British witnesses (including the Hood's survivors) report that simultaneously with this salvo, or very shortly thereafter, the Hood blew up.  While much farther away, the Bismarck's gunnery officer, Commander Adalbert Schnieder, had a good view of the Hood through the Bismarck's rangefinder.  He also saw the shell splashes as being nearly simultaneous with the Hood's explosion.  A similar report was given by Captain Brinkman and other officers on the bridge of the Prinz Eugen.

Thirdly, according to the technical experts at the second inquiry, detonation of the torpedo warheads would have caused a bright white flash.  No such event was observed by any witness.

So, based upon the above items, it seems most likely to me that the Bismarck struck the Hood and caused the magazine explosion.

The continuing popularity of Theories 3 and 4 can be attributed to witness reports that the "sheet of fire" from the explosion came from the vicinity of the Hood's mainmast, which is forward of the locations of the four and fifteen inch magazines but close to the torpedo storage spaces.  This seeming contradiction can be explained by examining the interior construction of the Hood.  There was only a one inch (25 mm) non-protective bulkhead between the machinery spaces and the magazines.  So, fragments from a shell exploding amidships could have easily pieced into the magazines.  The protective decks above the magazines and the thick armor alongside and behind the magazines would have tended to funnel the resulting explosion along the path of least resistance, back into the machinery spaces amidships.

One final note:  British gunpowder was quite volatile and rather unstable.  It has been theorized that the British Battlecruiser losses in both World War I and II were directly related to this unstable nature of their gunpowder.  The US and German gunpowders used during World War II were less volatile.  For more information on these propellants, please see article on this subject at our Technical Board.

In the final analysis, some measure of doubt as to the cause must always exist unless someone examines the wreck which lies in position 63º 20' N, 31º 50' W at a depth of over 5,000 feet (1,525 m).  Even then, considering the massive damage from the sinking itself and the probable implosion damage to the hull from the water's depth, the wreckage may be too shattered to allow a definitive answer.

For further information on the loss of the Hood and other matters, please visit our INRO Section.


Explanation note:

Every time I mention the fire in the Hood's 4 inch and UP ready lockers, someone asks (or wants to ask), "What's a UP?"  For everyone who asked (or who were too embarrassed to admit ignorance), here is the answer:  The UP was a British-designed AA weapon and was employed on many British warships early in WWII.  UP stands for "Unrotated Projector."  "Unrotated" meant that the barrel did not have any rifling, i.e., the projectile was not spin-stabilized.  Each emplacement was a set of twenty tubes, usually fired ten at a time.  Cordite was used to ignite ("Project") a fin-stabilized 3" (7.62 cm) rocket carrying a small mine.  When the rocket reached 1,000 feet (330 m), it exploded and put out a parachute with a wire attached to the mine.  The idea was that if a plane hit the parachute or the wire, it would then pull the mine into itself.

The Hood carried five UP mounts.  The UP projectiles were kept in ready lockers close to the projectors.  As was found out on the Hood, these stored weapons were rather flammable.  They were also found to be an almost totally ineffective weapon.  For these reasons, as the war went on, the UP was gradually replaced on surviving ships with either the British 2 pdr. or the Bofors 4 cm heavy AA machine gun.  For instance, shortly before she was sunk by the Japanese, the H.M.S. Prince of Wales had all three of her UP emplacements replaced with 2 pdr. mounts.  

Bibliography for this article:

Bekker, Cajus
    "Verdammte See," Gerhard Stalling Verlag, 1971 (published in English as "Hitler's Naval War").

Friedman, Dr. Norman
    "US Battleships:  A Design History," Naval Institute Press, 1985.

Garzke, William H., Jr. and Dulin, Robert O., Jr.,
    "Allied Battleships in World War II," Naval Institute Press, 1980.
    "Axis and Neutral Battleships in World War II," updated version, Naval Institute Press, 1990.

Kennedy, Ludovic
    "Pursuit:  The Chase and Sinking of the Bismarck," Viking Press, New York, 1974
    (Note:  I recommend this book for anyone seeking a detailed popular history of the entire Bismarck episode).

Raven, Alan and Roberts, John
    "British Battleships of World War II," Naval Institute Press, 1976.

Roberts, John
    "Anatomy of the Ship:  The Battlecruiser Hood," Conway Maritime Press, 1982.

von Müllenheim-Rechberg, Baron Burkard
    "Battleship Bismarck:  A Survivor's Story," revised edition, Naval Institute Press, 1990.

Special thanks to Stuart Slade, who very kindly provided me with information from the official British records on the Hood's sinking.  This article could not have been written without his expert assistance.  Originally, Stuart strongly believed in Theory #3, but, through our friendly and sometimes heated discussions on the subject, he is now "somewhat convinced" that Theory #1 is the correct answer.